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Setback for Syrian rebels as army takes Homs district

As siege for strategic central Syrian city reaches climax, opposition fears rebel fighters will not hold out much longer

Syrian troops drove insurgents from central Homs on Monday, tightening their siege on remaining rebel bastions in the strategically important city, which links Damascus to the Mediterranean heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect.

The military’s gains in Khalidiya district follow a counter-offensive by Assad’s forces, which have pushed back rebels around the Syrian capital and retaken several towns near the border with Lebanon in the last few weeks.

“As of this morning the armed forces, in collaboration with the National Defence Force, took full control of Khalidiya,” an army officer said, referring to the NDF militia which has fought in the offensive, along with Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

“The fate of terrorists will be under our feet,” he said, claiming that all Homs will soon be “cleansed” of rebels.

Shattered, deserted ruins and weeds sprouting a metre high in the rubble-filled streets around him showed the scale of the destruction and neglect in a city which was once an industrial powerhouse in Syria.

Also badly damaged in the Khalidiya fighting was the distinctive black and white stone mosque housing the shrine of early Islamic military leader Khalid ibn al-Walid.

Some activists disputed the capture of Khalidiya district, saying heavy clashes continued on Monday morning, but conceded the army had control of almost the entire neighbourhood.

The army’s progress in Khalidiya comes a month after it launched an offensive in Homs city, building on its capture of the border towns of Qusair and Tel Kalakh, which were both used to bring the rebels arms and fighters from Lebanon.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group which supports the activists, said government troops had overrun most of the neighbourhood apart from a few pockets of resistance in its southern areas.

Another member of the opposition, who wished to remain anonymous, conceded that the battle for Khalidiya was “almost over”.

Homs has been the target of a brutal and relentless siege for around a month, with rebels losing more and more ground to the combined forces of the Syrian army, paramilitary groups sympathetic to President Bashar al-Assad and troops from the Lebanese Islamic militant group Hezbollah.

In early June, regime forces captured the key border towns of Qusair and Talkalakh in the Homs province, not far from Lebanon.

The province is Syria's largest, running from the Lebanese frontier in the west to the border with Iraq and Jordan in the east. Homs itself holds strategic value because it is a crossroads between Damascus in the north and the coastal region that is a stronghold for President Assad's Alawite sect.

Khalidiya used to have a population of about 80,000, but with residents fleeing the violence and fighting over the past two years reducing many buildings to rubble, only around 2,000 people remain there today.